In this series of “illuminations,” I cite passages from David Bentley Hart’s collection of essays The Hidden and the Manifest that I have found particularly instructive. I hope they will generate good discussion.
Does God predestine the actions of human beings? Are we free or determined? For centuries Christians have lain awake at night pondering upon this question. Our logic tells us that if we are free, then we are not determined; that if we are determined, then we are not free. But what if our logic is faulty? What if the either/or question–freedom or determinism?–is meaningless, given the nature of divine transcendence?
Perhaps the most difficult discipline the Christian metaphysical tradition requires of its students is the preservation of a consistent and adequate sense of the difference between primary and secondary causality: between, that is, the transcendent and the contingent, or between–to abuse Heidegger’s idiom–the ontological and the ontic. It is a distinction so elementary to any metaphysics of creation that no philosophical theologian consciously ignores it; and yet its full implications often elude even the most scrupulous among us. This is no small matter; for the theological consequences of failing to observe the proper logic of divine transcendence are invariably unhappy, and in some cases even disastrous.
Consider, for instance, one of Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange’s more cherished axioms: “God determining or determined: there is no other alternative.” This is a logical error whose gravity it would be difficult to exaggerate. It is a venerable error, admittedly, adumbrated or explicit in the arguments of even some of the greatest theologians of the Western Church; but an error it remains. Applied to two terms within any shared frame of causal operation, between which some reciprocal real relation obtains, such a formula is perfectly cogent; but as soon as “God” is introduced as one of its terms, the formula is immediately rendered vacuous. If divine transcendence is an intelligible concept, it must be understood according to a rule enunciated by Maximus the Confessor: whereas the being of finite things has nonbeing as its opposite, God’s being is entirely beyond any such opposition. God’s being is necessary, that is, not simply because it is inextinguishable or eternally immune to nothingness, but because it transcends the dialectic of existence and nonexistence altogether; it is simple and infinite actuality, utterly pure of ontic determination, the “is” both of the “it is” and of the “it is not.” It transcends, that is to say, even the distinction between the finite act and finite potency, since both exist by virtue of their participation in God’s infinite actuality, in which all that might be always supereminently is. God is absolute, that is to say, in the most proper sense: he is eternally “absolved” of finite causality, so much so that he need not–in any simple univocal sense–determine in order to avoid being determined. His transcendence is not something achieved by the negation of its “opposite.” (“Impassibility as Transcendence,” pp. 168-169)
Yet it remains difficult to shake off the dilemma–either we are free or determined. Hence we need to think more deeply the significance of the creatio ex nihilo and our participation in the eternal freedom of God. Most importantly, we must recognize the qualitative difference between the divine act of creation and creaturely causality:
As primary cause of all things, after all, God is first and foremost the ontological cause. He imparts being to what, in itself, is nothing at all; out of the infinite plenitude of his actuality, he gives being to both potency and act; and yet what he creates, as the effect of a truly transcendent causality, possesses its own being, and truly exists as other than God (though God is not some “other thing” set alongside it). This donation of being is so utterly beyond any species of causality we can conceive that the very word “cause” has only the most remotely analogous value in regard to it. And, whatever warrant Thomists might find in Thomas for speaking of God as the first efficient cause of creation (which I believe to be in principle wrong), such language is misleading unless the analogical scope of the concept of efficiency has been extended almost to the point of apophasis. (p. 175)
In the end, it is no more contradictory to say that God can create–out of the infinite wellspring of his own freedom–dependent freedoms that he does not determine, than it is to say that he can create–out of the infinite wellspring of his being–dependent beings that are genuinely somehow other than God. In neither case, however, is it possible to describe the “mechanism” by which he does this. This aporia is simply inseparable from the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo–which, no matter how we may attempt to translate it into causal terms we can understand, remains forever incomprehensible to us. (p. 181)
Many of our conundrums flow from a false conception of divinity and disappear once we begin to grasp the nature of transcendence. We glimpse the absolute Mystery that eludes our reason. Yet so many questions remain …